The Corner

The Speech and the Presidency

Walter Dean Burnham described the president as the pontifex maximus of the American civil religion — the king replacement, the presider in chief.

What is curious about the role is that only a president may perform it, but not all — not even many — actually do so.

Franklin Roosevelt, with his Hudson squire manner and his radio voice, was by all accounts superb. Harry Truman, scrappy little jerk: no. Ike — better at D-Day; as president he seemed more like a nice uncle. JFK — his courtiers dearly wished to cast him in the role, and his inaugural showed promise, but he died too young. Johnson — “lugubrious bohunk” (a line of John Updike, who was trying to praise him): no. Nixon — anxious, embattled: no. Ford: no. Carter — tiny whiner: no.

Reagan — superb: forceful yet relaxed, dignified yet humble, at ease with words and with himself. Bush 1 — English as a second language: no. Clinton — God no. Bush 2 — English as a third language, yet in the aftermath of 9/11, beginning with his Ground Zero appearance, yes.

Obama’s acolytes were certain that fulfilling the pontifical role would be among the least and easiest of his accomplishments. He was so eloquent! Yet his speechmaking began to deteriorate with his inaugural, until he developed an array of tics — aloofness, petulance, long-windedness.

In the Tucson speech he stepped into the role. His political enemies will sigh, but must acknowledge that he has grasped an opportunity uniquely open to the president.

And there is something else: If the president chooses to slip some politics into his pontificating, he can do that too. Consider one of the first and grandest incarnations of the role, Washington’s Farewell Address. It is the grace summation of a lifetime, and it enounces principles of ongoing interest. It was also a direct hit at the Republican (now Democratic) party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who, by 1796, were essentially chorus girls for the French Revolution. They knew that had been hit, and they just had to grin and bear it.

So: pause, breathe, then — once more into the breach, once more.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Did Flynn Lie?

At the outset, let’s get two things straight: First, there is something deeply disturbing about the Obama administration’s decision to open a counterintelligence investigation on retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn while he was working on the Trump campaign — and, ultimately, about the Justice ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Where Is the Flynn 302?

Better late than never (I hope), my weekend column has posted on the website. It deals with the question whether General Michael Flynn actually lied to the FBI agents — including the now infamous Peter Strzok — when they interviewed him in the White House on his third day on the job as national security ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Who’s in Charge Here?

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was asked on many occasions whether he would “accept the results” of the election if he were to lose. Democrats and their media allies demanded that he make a solemn vow to “accept the results.” It was never entirely clear what anybody thought ... Read More
Culture

Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Tributes to the late Christopher Hitchens, who died seven years ago yesterday, are trending on Twitter. Hardly surprising. Hitchens had one of those rare, magnetic personalities and a genius for friendship according to some of the most talented writers around today such as Douglas Murray, Christopher Buckley, and ... Read More
U.S.

G-File Mailbag: The Results of a Bad Idea

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Including those of you just standing there eating Zarg nuts), I had a bad idea. It wasn’t a terrible idea, like asking a meth addict ... Read More